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Political Corruption and Social Trust - An Experimental Approach

Journal article
Authors Bo Rothstein
Daniel Eek
Published in Rationality and Society
Volume 21
Issue 1
Pages 81-112
ISSN 10434631
Publication year 2009
Published at Department of Psychology
Department of Political Science
Pages 81-112
Language en
Keywords corruption • institutional trust • social capital • social trust • trust experiment
Subject categories Social Sciences, Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)


The main question addressed in this paper is how the great variation in the level of social trust in different countries can be explained. Most empirical research on this question has been based on survey data which has limitations when it comes to capturing the causal mechanisms. Building on theories that point to the importance of trustworthy governmental institutions for creating social trust, two parallel experiments were conducted in two countries where the levels of corruption and social trust are very different. One group of 64 Swedish and one group of 82 Romanian undergraduate students responded to a number of scenarios which describe situations at a police station or a doctor's surgery in a foreign country. In the scenarios, the person tries to receive immediate assistance from the police/doctor at the same time as another person who lives in the `unknown' country. These encounters varied within groups in terms of (1) whether or not a bribe was used in order to receive immediate assistance, (2) whether the other person or the official took the initiative to request/offer immediate assistance in exchange for the bribe, and (3) outcome in terms of whether immediate assistance was approved or declined as a result of the offer or demand for a bribe. Type of authority (police vs. doctor) was a between-groups factor. Subsequent to each scenario, participants' levels of various aspects of vertical and horizontal trust were measured. As hypothesized, the Romanian sample had reliably lower initial levels of horizontal trust than the Swedish sample. For both samples, however, the results showed the expected effects of bribe, initiator, and outcome on all dependent trust measures. The results supported the hypothesis that trust in authorities influences the perceptions of the trustworthiness of others in general. Even though some of the effects were stronger for one sample than for the other, the influence of vertical trust on social trust was true for both the high- and the low-trusting sample.

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